Mathieu scored the goal against Celta in Vigo / MIGUEL RUIZ-FCB

Players from both FC Barcelona and Celta were slipping and sliding all over the turf for most of Sunday’s match at Balaídos in Vigo, Spain. The soft playing surface wreaked havoc on footing for the better part of 90 minutes, rendering cut backs, sudden stops and pivots useless as players from both teams fought not only to stay on their feet but to penetrate deeply into each other’s ends. Ironically, it was a chunk of that ripped up turf that finally sealed Celta’s fate as Fabián Orellano was shown a straight red card in the 87th minute for tossing a divot at FC Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets in disapproval of the midfielder’s cavalier approach to a free kick with Barça on top and time slowly dripping away.

Big shot

A quarter-hour before that skirmish the Catalans went up on a play eerily similar to Barça’s first goal in the Clásico two weeks ago at Camp Nou. With Barça strategising a free-kick opportunity out beyond the penalty area, it was French defender Jérémy Mathieu who headed in for a 1–0 lead for the second consecutive league game. A fortnight ago against Real Madrid Mathieu found space near the penalty spot, but tonight he bolted to the far post where his head met the ball and redirected it off the underside of the crossbar and into the net. The goal was Mathieu’s second straight not just in La Liga but in a clutch situation. It was also Barça's 13th set-play goal this year, their most since 2009/10.

Until FC Barcelona broke through, they had been slowly wearing down Celta’s tooth-and-claw defence. For the better part of the second half Barça upped their share in the battle for possession but struggled to piece together quality passes. Neymar was whistled offisides by a micron a few ticks after the intermission and then Dani Alves mis-hit a wide open shot near the spot on 64 minutes, seemingly resulting from just one of the many cases of poor-footing that plagued both offenses.

Lionel Messi — who sent wide a chance on 54 minutes and later just missed a chip-shot over the keeper in injury time — was unable to make progress in the race for the pichichi.

Retribution

The 1–0 final score reciprocates the result from the last time these two teams met. Back on 1 November Celta came into Camp Nou and defended mightily, and in Sunday’s encounter it was this same pestering defensive approach that seemed to be paying dividends early on.

Celta spent most of the first half putting on an exhibition of sheer bravery. Refusing to recoil into their own end they dug into the soft sod and clogged Barça’s passing lanes without mercy, trudging through midfield and into Barça’s end when presented with an opportunity.  The first big chance of the night came on a wide-angle tracer by Joaquín Larrivey on 11 minutes that blaugrana keeper Claudio Bravo skillfully parried. 

At the other end Messi and Neymar had back to back chances but Messi’s bullet was halted by Celta keeper Sergio Álvarez and Neymar’s close-range follow-up volley on the rebound went into orbit. Bravo had to intervene again on the half-hour mark when an Alves miscue supplied Celta striker Nolito with dangerous one-one-one chance out near the edge of the area.

Play became bogged down near midfield for the remainder of the first half, with Celta getting the only chance in the minutes before the break. Larrivey — Celta’s leading scorer and the man who broke through in the November match — looked to have eons of time to the left of the spot but inexplicably rushed his shot, the ball tumbling innocuously to Bravo’s right and over the touch line for a goal kick.